The glory of our city is in its history, which presses down upon us from angle, as omnipresent as the humidity of New York in June. Here are some of the city's most venerable touchstones, the living fossils, the righteous relics of a time long gone, but still alive in a handful of bars and restaurants.
Old, dank, crowded, and occasionally rowdy, this is one of the oldest bars in New York -- and it both looks and smells like it. That said, it has the virtue of still being a working, relevant bar, and not a parody of itself. The food quality is mediocre at best but I can't think of anywhere I'd rather drink a highball.
Come for the decor, stay for the meatballs -- and for the love of god, ignore the promise of vegan food on the sign. This is pure old-school italian which resembles nothing so much as the restaurant where Michael Corleone kills Solozzo in The Godfather.
Ancient, rowdy, and run by a truculent old right-winger, this old-school bar is home to whiskey straight up and one of the city's best chili dogs.
Sometimes I feel ambivalent about McSorley's. It's the ultimate old-time New York bar, the subject of an essay which is itself a classic, and the framed pictures on the wall make the place essentially a museum you can drink (very good) beer in. On the other hand, it's too well-lit, too self-aware, and its frat-boy crowd is always threatening to turn it into an outright bro hole. The fine hamburger and corned beef hash always settle the issue for me, though: McSorley's is a treasure.
Delmonico's is not, as it claims, the first restaurant in the United States, but it was certainly the first power restaurant in the country, the Le Cirque of the Gilded Age. While it has moved at least twice since it's heyday of Diamond Jim Brady, it's still massive and elegant, with old-school food that traffics little in contemporary trends.
The oldest bar or restaurant in New York, Fraunces Tavern is literally so old that George Washington ate there. The food has changed, but not much, and anyway, it isn't the point. The restaurant is a piece of living history, and to eat roast beef there is to link one's stomach with the founding fathers of the nation. Also, it's excellent roast beef.
Generally when you hear that someplace is "old school," it generally connotes an antiquarian bent -- framed pictures of Teddy Roosevelt, mounted animal heads on the walls -- but Raoul's is far cooler than that. Yes, it hasn't changed since the 70s, but even then it seemed timeless, intimate, sexy, and great at what it does -- namely steak au poirve and red wine.
There aren't many remnants of the old Chinatown of the early 20th century -- in fact, there is only one that I can think of, this ancient tea house and dim sum parlor. The facade is perfectly preserved and much of the interior; but sadly few of the old dishes come with it. That said, this is a must-visit for lovers of old New York.
Reviewing 21 is like reviewing Mount Rushmore; it doesn't matter what you say, because it's a national monument. The last and greatest of the great speakeasies of the 1920s, it morphed into one of the supreme power scenes of midcentury New York and still has much of its old power. The food is much better than you might expect, and if you want a definitive martini, this is the place to have it.
The most famous steakhouse in America delivers on its promise of incomparable atmosphere and unique character. It's the template of all other steakhouses, and you are almost guaranteed to have a great time there, especially if your pockets are deep. The steak is not, in fact, that great anymore, but they're still very good for the most part, and their dressing of butter and kidney suet could make a steak-umm good. The hash browns, cake, bacon, and the other sides are wonderful too.
Along with Keens, Sparks, and Peter Luger, this is part of the Classic Quartet of old-time New York steakhouses, and by no means the worst. The room has an intimacy not to be found in its rivals and the thick, narrow strip steaks are of uniformly high quality and the wine list is sweeping. The cost is high but not too much for a unique restaurant such as this one.